The Rise of the Internet ‘Mitigators’

After all, who would march under the banner ‘On the one hand, X, on the other hand, maybe not X’?

A couple of years ago, a thoughtful technologist I was talking to said something that has really stuck with me:

You know, I’m not actually sure that, over time, the internet will be viewed as a net-net good thing for the world.

I love how this simple statement captures the uncertainty of a person who is fully aware that the digital age has brought extraordinary dishes to the restaurant-table of humanity, but who is nervous both that the menu doesn’t appear to contain any prices, and the server is being alarmingly vague about what payment methods will be accepted at the end of the night.

I’ve been thinking about the pros and cons implied in this quote a lot recently. Doing so, it has occurred to me that while most thoughtful people can easily hold elements of optimism and caution in their heads at the same time, most social-impact organizations cannot, constitutionally, be so even-handed.

The pressures innate to social-impact organizations of any kind mean that they cannot adopt positions that are too ambiguous. After all, who would march under the banner ‘On the one hand, X, on the other hand, maybe not X’?

The tech scene is not immune to this pressure, and so over the last two decades organizations have self-sorted themselves into two broad camps. The first camp contains those organizations which are primarily concerned with mitigating harmful consequences of modern technologies. The second camp contains organizations that exist to try to solve problems and promote welfare through methods that use digital technologies. I’ll call these two camps the ‘mitigators’ and the ‘promoters.’

There are a lot of good organizations and familiar names in both camps. The most famous in the mitigators would be the Electronic Frontier Foundation, but there’s also the Chaos Computer Club, the Open Rights Group, and the red-hot new research institute Data & Society. In the promoters camp the biggest name would undoubtedly be the Wikimedia Foundation, followed by Mozilla, and then a thousand other organizations, including my own alma mater mySociety. Furthermore, if you watch the excellent Silicon Valley TV series, you’ll know there’s an argument to be made for putting more or less all modern startups in the promoters camp, allegedly out to ‘make the world a better place.’ There’s also a case for putting Obama for America in the promoters camp, and all of ‘ICT4D’—that is, tech for international development.

For much of the last two decades tech-and-social-impact promoters and mitigators rose in lockstep, with a simultaneous blooming of organizations in both camps, often connected by people who had feet in both worlds. There are and were many cross-friendships and relationships.

Now, the balance is shifting, and I believe that we are heading towards an era in which the mitigation camp grows rapidly and where the promotion camp withers somewhat. There is only so much energy, talent, money, and media attention out there, and to my beady eye it definitely feels like the tide has turned towards mitigation for the last three years or so.

It’s pretty obvious why the mitigation camp would be growing. From Snowden to Trump, from drones to trolls, the digital world is giving us an immense number of reasons to be nervous, and a huge number of reasons to justify investment in research and activism. On the other hand, the promoters suffer from sitting alongside hugely successful private-sector digital businesses, and the miraculous products they give away, normally for free. They appear relatively small, and appear to be shrinking—Wikipedia traffic is down year after year; nobody expects Mozilla to be bigger in the future than it was in the past. And what was the last free and open data standard to really shape a whole product market? Probably podcasts, technically formalized in about the year 2000.

I don’t fully know what to think about the shift towards mitigators. They clearly, self-evidently deserve immense support and resources—regulating the internet giants is obviously going to be one of the big governmental projects of the 21st century, and reaching a new social contract with our security services is needed, too. Those two jobs are going to take at least fifty years and will consume entire careers.

I guess I’m just a little bit sad that after growing up in a world that was so excited about Linux, Wikipedia, TCP/IP, and other free and open public interest technologies of real scale, that the next phase of public interest development is going to be left primarily to the private sector. Or maybe that’s just the perspective of someone who lives in a country of permanent austerity—maybe in a few years we’ll just be able to import a world of good new public interest technologies from Canada or somewhere. Anyway, regardless of how I feel about it, the wind has definitely changed directions, so we’d all better set our sails accordingly.